The Adventures of Choosing a College

Senior Micah Osler goes through the do’s and dont’s of college mail, and how that affects the college search.

So, it’s done. I’ve made my college choice after a few weeks of indecision. This August, I’ll be headed to Yale.

I’m not going to write another think piece about what’s wrong or right with the college admissions process, or something else about what should or shouldn’t matter in applying to a school, or anything else like that. Instead, I’m going to write about something common to every college applicant today that rarely gets talked about:

The mail.

Like most people of my generation, after checking an innocuous box on the PSAT, I found my mailbox flooded with college publications – viewbooks, brochures, pamphlets, and so forth. The deluge began sophomore year and only ended about a week ago.

My question is: what works and what doesn’t? What little tidbits of marketing can actually make a discerning kid apply to your school?

Doesn’t work: Lying about who you are.  This is the most egregious wrong I can think of in college marketing – selling your school as something it clearly isn’t. In the case of a highly selective Midwestern institution that wouldn’t stop sending me mail, all of its publications showcased it as a fun, quirky, collaborative environment. From what I gathered from campus visits and talking with students there, that couldn’t be farther from what it is, and let’s be honest: if you’re gonna be fooled by that kind of marketing, you’re probably not quite the type who’s going to make it at such a selective school, anyway.

Works: Showing off your secrets. There’s a thin line between this – showcasing your hidden strengths in your marketing – and the previous point. The distinction is the truth. Stanford does actually care about the humanities, and it says as much in its advertising. The key is being able to corroborate your hidden strength with evidence.

Doesn’t work: Bad Photoshop. That’s kind of all I need to say for this one.

Doesn’t work: Highlighting something fundamentally unimportant. For instance, I kept getting mail from one school in the Caribbean that emphasized its beaches and weather. Both of those are nice, but not one drop of ink was spilled on academics or activities. I took a pass on applying.

Works: Simple graphic design. This seems like a simple one, but you’d be surprised. The simpler and clearer the motif, the better.

Doesn’t work: The generic shot. Every college campus north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi has beautiful foliage in autumn and at least three photogenic students. Show me something unique.

Works: The short declarative. If your school has a great hook, make it short and embrace it. The best postcard I ever got was from Bates, which in one line summed up the school’s Abolitionist history and why it mattered to its identity today.

Doesn’t work (for me, at least): Hashtags. Or selfies with the mascot. Or other ways schools try to show that they’re hip. Kids don’t apply to selective schools because they’re hip. They apply because they want to learn. Beyond that, overusing social media paradoxically makes a school seem out of touch and desperate.

Works: Sending a letter or two. Look – if you’re a selective institution trying to recruit students, realize that the high school kids you want to attend your institution, while pretty dumb in a lot of regards, are at least going to remember that you sent them a letter. Sending an introductory note and a viewbook is plenty.

Doesn’t work: The endless barrage of mail. The certain Midwestern university I named above sent me a postcard or two near the tail end of my sophomore year. And then a letter. And another letter. And a packet, and a copy of their fashion magazine (?), and another packet, and a viewbook, and a letter, and faux-cutesy postcard after postcard after postcard. This, despite the fact I showed no interest in their institution. The onslaught went from cute to annoying much quicker than the marketing folks behind it probably suspected.

Doesn’t work: Talking down to us. I’ll repeat it again – we’re looking at selective colleges. We’re not idiots, and we hate being treated as such. The worst example of this is a letter a well-known East Coast university sent my parents last year, after I’d narrowed down my final list of schools and begun applying with the Common App. It explained in sympathetic terms that some students are too lazy to start the college-search process on their own, and that they should push me along (towards their school, obviously) because I’m another slacker Millenial, of course. In case I’m not being clear enough, this is the worst possible thing a college could do to market itself, short of sending me a dead cat or something.

Works: Honesty, sincerity, and respecting our intelligence. Why did I apply to the schools I did? Well, honestly, the majority of that selection was done in a sphere mostly removed from marketing. But in some cases, the publications a college sent to me mattered. They mattered because they talked to me like an adult and not a statistic.

About a year ago, I received a heavy letter-sized envelope, wedged between the garish brochures and gaudy viewbooks. Inside was a three-page note. It explained to me, in no uncertain terms, why the institution it represented was one the nation’s best. Instead of highlighting something unimportant or pointing to mostly-meaningless statistics, it told me about the university’s commitment to undergraduate education and the endless opportunities its grads enjoyed. Without mincing words, it let me know that the school it came from was highly selective, but that it cost little to apply and the rewards for admission were incredible. It told me that I would have great college choices, but that the admissions office at that school believed that it would be a great fit for me. It did all this without gimmicks, without social media or neologisms or anything else trendy, with just some stationery and some honesty.

And it mattered. The letter this school sent me impressed me a little in the moment, but it worked on me insidiously. As the months dragged on and decisions rolled in, I couldn’t help being drawn back to it. The points it made resonated with me, but the warm, personal tone did too. Through some stroke of marketing genius, this form letter sent to thousands of kids throughout the nation spoke to me. It told me that the institution it stood for was a school that respected its undergraduates, was blunt and honest about its faults but wasn’t afraid to state its strengths, and knew enough to have figured out that gimmicks come and go, but the key to attracting students was also the key to, well, living – sincerity.

If you hadn’t guessed already, the school that sent that letter was Yale.

So, marketers – the work you do matters. If you do it right, you can get through to today’s kids. Just be honest without being self-deprecating. Understand your audience as humans with brains that think thoughts deeper than tweets.

And, most of all, don’t cloak your message behind irony or cynicism or another flimsy shield. Sincerity matters.